Kristin Hersh: ‘I’m not impressed with shallow’

On her Twitter account, Kristin Hersh describes herself as “musician, writer, mother of four boys”. For the last 30 years she has seen music and motherhood as intrinsically connected.

Kristin Hersh. Picture: Peter Mellekas

“One informs the other,” says the American singer and guitarist known for her solo work as well as with the bands Throwing Muses and 50ft Wave. “Because I had my first child as a teenager I don’t know much else.

“I even raised my little brother. We had hippie parents so we had no parents, he needed me to eat and stuff. I learned that was the closest route to nature, because your life just happened like that. If you’re lucky enough to let that resonate early on it’s sort of an unshakeable spine that you walk around with.

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“When it comes to music, that was so solidified in my orientation that it must be nature, it must be life speaking, which sounds lofty but I don’t mean it that way, I mean very grounded, very basic, fundamental. And you expect that of every song – if it doesn’t flourish you don’t share it, it’s not publishable. Whereas in the music industry, publishable means the opposite – the zombie, the bimbo, the marketed fashion. I was not able to engage that way, and you may suffer physically, you can’t pay your rent if you don’t engage that way, but that unshakeable spine is real, and I’m glad I stuck with meaning.

“If I didn’t have these ongoing babies reminding me life begets life begets life, I might have fallen prey to what most of the industry does, which is try to impress with shallow. And I’m not impressed with shallow, I don’t do that to people, it’s an insult and it’s selfish. I can’t do that, I’d rather live in my truck.”

Her new book, Seeing Sideways, recounts the story of a complex life via four chapters named her sons, Doony, Ryder, Wyatt and Bodhi. Interwoven are details of her custody battle for Doony, struggles with her record label, post-traumatic stress disorder, writer’s block and a series of crises from which she is saved by what she calls ‘strange angels’.

For a music memoir, what’s immediately noticeable is the complete absence of rock ’n’ roll anecdotes and name-dropping. Industry back-slapping is anathema to Hersh, 54. “The term ‘big name’ is so ludicrous,it’s like the pyramids,” she says. “Why don’t we call them on that? ‘How long is my identity going to last?’ You know what, it could go away right now if you would just admit it is not real, don’t try to make it bigger. So no names except my babies, because that’s my bridge to life. I’ve got a life because I have no idea that I’m even visible. It wasn’t really working for me, I have this strong attachment to being invisible.”

Her alienation from the corporate marketing of the music world was not, however, immediate. “I had no idea they would call us ‘women’ or ‘girls’, I thought that we were people, and I was shocked; I even got s*** for not being female,” she says, recalling how she was once accused of “chickening out” for including a male drummer in Throwing Muses’ otherwise all-women original line-up. “I was like, ‘well, Dave (Narcizo) is not female, and I didn’t hire him, we all volunteered, this is not a money-making venture’.

“I thought being part of a subculture we knew already, at least my country had already been through this bulls***. They’d take black music and make it ‘clean’ and call it white and they could sell it. Now obviously the top 40 has nothing to do with music, it’s a product; in this (indie) subculture we’re here because we have to be here, we’re playing because we have to play. When I first started it didn’t take long for me to see a lot of people in my subculture were trying to be rock stars.

“I didn’t really help anyone by removing myself from the industry, but I didn’t become part of the problem, and that’s OK.”

In the book, Hersh makes a distinction between fans and listeners – people she describes as “the ones who take off after shows, they have better things to do than hang out with us”. She sees listeners as the people who have helped sustain her through the last 35 years. “Those are my Strange Angel listener supporters,” she says. “I’m not sure we had quite realised we had won that battle until the Muses’ last tour a couple of years ago.

“On the Purgatory Paradise tour we were having a lot of trouble with fans, the whole audience would just stay after the show. We ere trying to pack up our gear and they’d rush the stage and then we had to pose for pictures for hours. My drummer, who’s the nicest person in the world, just laughed at it and said ‘this can’t happen, you have to get rid of the audience after the set’. It’s just coping that engenders this kind of response. We still can’t afford bodyguards.

“The club would be cleared and when we left there would be half a dozen people in the parking lot and they were just talking to each other. We would walk past and they would wave, they don’t want autographs or anything. We eventually realised these are the Strange Angels, they just want to meet each other not us because they know that we’re electricians, we’re just facilitating our current through their home and their car, we already made our money and they don’t want us to write our names down.”

Seeing Sideways is publiished by JawbonePress, priced £14.95.